NORMAL — For Illinois State's Milik Yarbrough, being named the Missouri Valley Conference's Newcomer of the Year on Tuesday was a very personal matter.
“My dad really taught me how to play the game of basketball,” said the 6-foot-6 junior forward from Zion. “I really dedicated the whole season to him and everything else I do.”
Del Yarbrough, a former ISU standout who was a four-year starter from 1976-80 and ranks No. 27 on the school's all-time scoring list, never got to see his son play for his alma mater. The elder Yarbrough died in December 2016 as Milik Yarbrough was sitting out with the Redbirds per NCAA rules after transferring from Saint Louis.
Yarbrough and teammate Phil Fayne were honored when the Valley released its all-league teams and specialty award winners on Tuesday. In addition to the Newcomer of the Year award, Yarbrough also was an all-league first-team selection and part of the All-Newcomer Team, while Fayne was picked to the all-league second team.
Voting was done by league's head coaches, sports information directors and a media panel who could not vote for their own players or players they cover.
The Redbirds (16-14) are the No. 3 seed in the MVC Tournament and face sixth-seeded Indiana State (13-17) in an 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal game Friday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Yarbrough has put together a statistical season for the ages. He is among three players nationally who rank in the top five in their conferences in scoring (16.7 points per game), rebounding (6.6) and assists (4.8), with the latter leading the Valley.
If Yarbrough keeps those averages up the rest of the season, he would be only the 11th player to do so nationally since the 1992-93 season.
“I'm really honored to get recognized and let everyone see I was one of the best players in the conference, and I really worked for what I got this year,” said Yarbrough. “I was never satisfied in the summer with anything I was doing. I'm appreciative of what I've got, but I'm really worried about the tournament and what's going on with that and coming out with the championship.”
ISU coach Dan Muller said he anticipated Yarbrough being “this type of player” for the Redbirds. While Muller acknowledged there were some ups and downs early in the season for Yarbrough, he added “obviously he's a heck of a player and really fun to coach.”
“In a lot of ways if we would have been healthy, Milik would have had an even better year,” said Muller. “The more good players on the court with him, the more that opens that paint up and the more ability he has to spread that ball around. As every coach says when you're preparing for him, his ability to pass is what makes him pretty special.”
Yarbrough credits his father for working with him through high school.
“For this season to be like this and winning Newcomer of the Year, he would be proud,” said Yarbrough, who then added laughing, “but he would probably be mad at the same time because he wanted me to win Player of the Year.”
Yarbrough, who finished fourth in the Player of the Year voting, is the sixth ISU player to capture the Newcomer of the Year award. He joins Reggie Wilson (1991), Tarise Bryson (1999), Lorenzo Gordon (2005), Chamberlain Oguchi (2009) and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (2015).
Fayne, a 6-9 junior forward, ranks in the Valley's top six in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.1) and field goal percentage (.602) despite missing three league games late in the season with an ankle injury. He was on the MVC All-Newcomer Team last season after transferring to ISU from Western Nebraska College.
“He's been a rock for us before he got hurt. We look forward to him getting back to that play before he got hurt,” said Muller. “You just plug him in every game between 12 and 18 points and five and 10 rebounds. It shows his consistency with his practices and habits that shows up on game nights.”
Muller was disappointed ISU junior guard Keyshawn Evans, who ranks fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (.438), sixth in scoring (15.3 ppg) and eighth in assists (3.5), wasn't recognized.
“I thought he was deserving,” said Muller. “He missed games also, and if he didn't it would have been different. I think Keyshawn's main focus is Friday night.”
Clayton Custer easily became Loyola's first winner of the Larry Bird Trophy. The junior point guard received 40 of a possible 43 first-place votes and 125 poll points to easily outdistance Missouri State's Alize Johnson (55 points). Loyola is 23-2 with Custer in the lineup after he led the Ramblers in scoring (14.2 ppg), 3-point percentage (.462), assists (4.2) and steals (1.7).
“This was not part of my season goals. This wasn't on my radar at all," said Custer. "For this to end up happening, I'm very honored and pretty excited about it.”
Reed Timmer of Drake and Ryan Taylor of Evansville joined Yarbrough, Custer and Johnson on the all-league first team.
Loyola, which won the regular-season championship by four games, also had the Freshman of the Year in center Cameron Krutwig and Defensive Player of the Year in senior guard Ben Richardson.
Southern Illinois senior guard Tyler Smithpeters was named Sixth Man of the Year.
The MVC Coach of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year will be announced during a Thursday luncheon in St. Louis. The All-Bench and Most Improved teams, selected by league beat writers, will be released Wednesday.